Monday 29 September 2014

Structure of a life

The film Boyhood, written and directed by Richard Linklater, offers interesting insights into how we construct stories of our lives. Filming took place a few days at a time, every year or so, over a twelve-year period, with the same characters, played by the same four principal actors. The film’s protagonist is Mason (played by Ellar Coltrane). He is six when the film starts. Then there is his older sister, Samantha (played by Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter). Then there are these children’s parents, who are separated: Olivia (played by Patricia Arquette) and Mason senior (played by Ethan Hawke).

The film seems in some ways like a documentary, but it's actually a fiction film. In its first half its structure is a series of episodes that all seem distinct, linked not by a plot but by a continuity of characters’ lives and relationships. So we see the affection between Mason and his mother, the children's squabbles, them being taken out by their father on days when he has custody, scenes in the class room, Mason being bullied by some boys who are larger than he is, Olivia introducing a man who will move into the family home, and become a stepfather to the two children.

In its second half, the film starts to take on a recognizable plot structure. This reflects psychological work of Dan McAdams (see, e.g. McAdams & McLean, 2013) on how people give themselves a sense of unity and purpose by remembering episodes in their lives and, from them, constructing narratives of selfhood: life stories. In the film, this narrative structure begins for Mason when he is given a camera and takes up photography. He starts to conceive his own aspirations, and to direct his own plans and actions. He wants to be an artist, and to go to college. Tilmann Habermas and Susan Bluck (2000) extend McAdams’s work by showing that, before adolescence, children’s cognitive capacities are such that they can remember events in their lives, but can’t yet link them together, or link such events to their current plans in a narrative way. The film gives a wonderfully seamless transition between its pre-adolescent episodic structure, and its adolescent narrative structure.

As Mason starts to make choices in his life, we see how he begins to influence his own character. He has been affected by his parents’ divorce, and not just by his first step-father who turns out to be a drunk and an abuser, but by a second step-father who is cold and rigid. Although Mason is attractive to others because he is temperamentally amiable and equable, in his identity-constructing conversation with his friends he takes on a stance that is cynical, and verges on nihilism. It’s another accomplishment of Boyhood that it leaves us wondering how this life might continue when the film stops.

Habermas, T., & Bluck, S. (2000). Getting a life: The emergence of the life story in adolescence. Psychological Bulletin, 126, 748-769.

Linklater, R. (2014). Writer and director. Boyhood. USA.

McAdams, D. P., & McLean, K. C. (2013). Narrative identity. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22, 233-238.

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